Making Rhino Horns Out of Stem Cells

Biosynthetic engineering could protect heavily poached animals like elephants, tigers, and rhinos by giving consumers what they want.

White rhinos await buyers at the annual auction in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi national park, September 2010. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

This month a northern white rhinoceros by the name of Angalifu died at the San Diego Zoo. Her death follows that of another member of her species in October, a male rhino by the name of Suni.

I met Suni this past summer in Kenya, where biologists transferred him and three other rhinos from a zoo in 2009 in the hopes he would reproduce. From far away, Suni looked like he was chipped out of rock. His shape was part bovine and part dinosaur. Up close, I could see his skin was textured with ruts and cracks, like the surface of parched earth, and his horns were not perfectly cylindrical but rather like a piece of wood that had been chiseled. His temperament was sweet and stubborn; he jostled for hay with two female southern white rhinos, his evolutionary cousins. When he trotted away in defeat, his stumpy legs sent up comic puffs of dust.

Though both Suni and Angalifu likely passed from natural causes, their deaths are a tragedy, bringing the total number of northern white rhinos left in the world to five and virtually ensuring their extinction. Researchers predict southern white rhinos could also go extinct in 23 years, so soon that stopping poaching in that time may not be possible. Instead, bioengineers are now working on making rhino horns from stem cells—a process that could protect the animals, but also give consumers in Asia what they want.

Protecting rhinos in the wild has proved to be exceedingly difficult. Kes Hillman Smith, a zoologist who probably knows more than anybody in the world about northern whites in their habitat, spent 24 years in eastern Congo on a park called Garamba, trying to save the last population from poachers coming over the borders of Sudan, Rwanda, and Uganda. In that war-torn part of the planet, her job was often a literal battle against rebels and paramilitary groups. “They were just exploiting their neighbor, selling ivory and rhino horn to get weapons and continue their wars,” said Smith. When she left in 2005, there were only four rhinos left and none have been seen since 2007.

Across Africa today, rhino populations are undergoing the same decimation that took place in eastern Congo. For the last couple of years, the rate of poaching in South Africa has approached three animals a day, compared with a decade ago when 15 individuals during a year was average. This epidemic is a direct response to the appetite for rhino horn in Asia, particularly Vietnam, where it is used as medicine and a status symbol. Its trade has been illegal since 1977 but despite the ban, and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on protecting animals, market demand has driven the value of rhino horn to historic heights.

Garrett Vygantas, a San Francisco-based biochemist, knows this and believes he has the solution: Give the market what it wants. “We’re going to run out of time to convince people that this is not an active therapeutic,” he said. “I think we should present another option which is a sustainable, cruelty-free, genetically-identical product that can be purchased through the regular channels. ”

For 10 years Vygantas worked in the biotechnology field helping venture capital firms invest in bringing medical research products to market. He also harbors a deep appreciation for wildlife; he flirted with a career as a veterinarian and once spent 10 weeks traveling by truck across Bostwana, Namibia, Zambia, and Mozambique. In 2012, Vygantas had a stroke of insight that brought these two worlds together. “The thought occurred to me if the main reason these rhinos are getting slaughtered is for the harvesting of their horn,” he said, “there certainly is a way to address the supply problem using biosynthetic engineering.”

A year later, Vygantas filed a patent for a process that takes rhino skin cells and bioengineers them into keratinocytes, the cells that produce the protein keratin that make up rhino horn. The science behind this process relies on what are called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, taking mature cells and reprogramming them into an immature state that can develop into any cell of the body. The process was first developed by Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his achievement.

Until 2011, however, scientists had focused on creating iPSCs from human or mouse cells. That’s when Jeanne Loring, a respected pioneer in the field of regenerative medicine, made iPSCs from the first endangered animal, a northern white rhino named Fatu, potentially enabling scientists to create rhino eggs and sperm that could be used in assisted reproduction methods to create entirely new animals. “If we can capture them as pluripotent cells, it’s like we have the rhinos in the freezer,” Loring told me.

Vygantas doesn’t want to create whole rhinos, he just wants to make their horns. His company, Ceratotech, is currently conducting experiments that grow keratinocyte cells onto scaffolds that mimic the anatomical shape of a rhino horn. The resulting product should have all of the same properties as a horn from the wild. Vygantas calls it a “platform technology” that could also be applied across the endangered species spectrum to manufacture elephant ivory, shark fin, or tiger penis. In November, Ceratotech became a semi-finalist for Richard Branson's Extreme Tech Challenge, and were offered an invitation to Branson’s private resort Necker Island to discuss the technology.

If Vygantas can produce and sell the horn in Asia, he hopes to avoid legal hurdles posed by the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species. Flooding the market with the product, he believes, will put poachers and the criminal syndicates that hire them, out of business. “There is an artificial price on rhino horn because of constraints on the market,” he said. “If we can supply this product, the laws of economics say that price should come down.”

The public is often presented with geological and biological engineering schemes that scientists say can fix environmental problems, from cloud seeding to combat global warming or de-extinction to correct biodiversity loss. Our eagerness to embrace them can be troublesome. While technological fixes often seem ingenious, they skirt the very problems—poverty, greed, or war—that created climate change or extinction threats in the first place. Vygantas’ scheme, however, began to strike me as admirably cunning: It subverts international law, exploits superstition, and quite possibly makes piles of money, all towards a highly noble end.

Conservation organizations may find it a flawed and cynical strategy. “I think it would likely increase the value of the real thing,” said Ginette Hemley, a senior vice president at the World Wildlife Fund. Having an abundance of fake Rolex watches on the market, she pointed out, doesn’t decrease the value of real Rolexes.

There is research that indicates Vygantas is on to something: Increasing supply rather than decreasing demand may be the only timely response to the current poaching epidemic. In October, the journal Conservation Biology published a paper whose authors analyzed various policy scenarios and their effects on southern white rhino populations. Legalizing trade and selling a quota of rhino horn each year, they reported, could generate net profits of $1 billion a year. If this money was reinvested in anti-poaching efforts, the population could increase by as much as 75 percent in coming years.

Dr. Michael Knight, chairman of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s African Rhino Specialist Group, told me that so long as profits from Vygantas’ enterprise were also given to protection and management of wild rhinos, it is an idea worth pursuing. “I don’t think it is inherently immoral. You are providing a commodity to people that want it and you are generating it in a way that is not having a negative impact on the environment,” he said. “Who are we to judge a commodity that people have been using in Asia for thousands of years?”